While trees and their fruits have had an ongoing importance for Jewish culture, it was probably the very first encounter between humans and trees that had the most powerful and long-lasting impact.
As recounted in the opening chapters of Genesis, the first couple were placed in a garden endowed with diverse vegetation, but among them were two special trees whose fruits they were forbidden to eat. Of course we are all familiar with the outcome: as punishment for their primordial act of disobedience in eating from the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden of Eden, and since that time the human race had to make its way through the less hospitable realities of the outside world.
What, indeed, is a "tree of knowledge"? Are we dealing with an actual botanical species, or with some uniquely metaphysical entity--or is it an allegory or metaphor for a profound spiritual state?
Several rabbis in the Talmud and Midrash tried to identify the fateful fruit with known species of trees. Rabbi Judah chose the grape, whose fermented juice is a frequent cause of mishaps. Rabbi Abba of Acre suggested it was an etrog. Rabbi Yosé voted for the fig, noting that this is why the couple later covered their nakedness with fig leaves. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi insisted that scripture intentionally refrained from divulging the name of the inauspicious fruit in order to avoid tainting it with a stigma. Note, by the way, that apples were not mentioned in any of these discussions.
Medieval Jewish commentators had more sophisticated ways of understanding the lessons of the story. They observed that the effects of the fruit had profound moral and spiritual consequences that could not be produced by any natural tree. Much of their discourse on this topic came to focus on defining the precise effects that were precipitated by the eating of the fruit.
Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra understood that the forbidden fruit had an aphrodisiac quality that transformed Adam and Eve's attitude toward sex from a natural biological process into a complex psychological fixation with destructive guilt-inducing potential. This quasi-Freudian insight can be inferred from their reaction to eating the fruit: they were overcome by a shame of their nakedness that they had not felt previously.
Rabbi Moses Nahmanides understood that the unique power of the fruit lay in its ability to bestow free will on those who ingested it. Prior to eating it, people were obedient cogs in the causal dynamics of physics and nature, no different from any other beast that follows its assigned course without question. The fruit bestowed upon Eve and Adam a mixed blessing: on the one hand, possession of a free will elevated them to a more "godly" status; however, it also subjected them to a curse, as they would henceforth be involved in continuous struggles with decisions, temptations and desires.
It would appear, according to the conventional reading of the biblical narrative, that in partaking of the forbidden fruit the first humans were enhancing their status and, in effect, being allowed to enjoy the wages of their disobedience. This can be jarring to our natural expectation that crime should not pay.
This objection was posed to Maimonides by an unnamed scholar, and it induced him to suggest an intriguing new interpretation for the story and for the function of the forbidden fruit in God's plans for the human race.
Maimonides challenged the notion that eating the fruit led to an improvement in the human situation. The truth, he argued, was the exact opposite: from the very beginning of their existence, men and women were imbued with the spirit and image of God, which should be equated with the possession of a rational intellect. The fact that the Almighty could command Adam and Eve not to eat from certain fruits presupposed that they could choose whether or not to obey, implying that they must surely have been capable of making intelligent judgments. If this is true, then what transformation occurred in them when they bit into the fruit?
The truth, insists Maimonides, is that there was never any such thing as a "tree of knowledge." If you read the text carefully, what the Torah is speaking of is actually the "tree of knowledge of good and evil"--or "of good and bad"--which is a different matter altogether. From the perspective of a dedicated rationalist, "knowledge of good and evil" verges on being an oxymoron, since authentic knowledge should be limited to the realm of absolute certainty: of "true and false." True rationality is grounded in the realm of what is eternally true--as expressed in disciplines like logic, mathematics and metaphysics--whereas moral values belong to an inferior plane of thought that is subject to the vagaries of social conventions, political correctness, imagination and personal taste.
Indeed, Maimonides believed that God's original plan for human perfection was that we should all function like computers that analyze reality according to clear-cut binary criteria. Vague categories like "good" and "bad" might be suitable for lesser modes of fuzzy discourse such as esthetic judgments, moral sensibilities or "truthiness," but not for the sound logical reasoning that God expected from serious human beings.
When viewed in this manner, the outcome of Eve's and Adam's disobedience was not an upgrading of their status, but a decisive demotion in rank. Instead of experiencing the world from the clear perspective of divine intelligence and understanding, they now relinquished their control over the most basic aspects of their reality, as exemplified in their inability to deal with their nakedness. Once they had compromised their true intellectual vocation by yielding to the sensual allure of the luscious fruit, they were relegated to the confused realms of opinions, impressions and subjectivity.
If Maimonides' interlocutor believed that the fruit of Eden had the power to transform a two-legged beast into a true homo sapiens, Maimonides himself was convinced that the act of eating the fruit brought about humanity's degeneration from a God-like species to a state just barely above the brute animals.
None of these interpretation offers us much practical help for recognizing the fruits if they should happen to show up at your local supermarket. Nevertheless, if you should find yourself in possession of a crate of ripe knowledge-fruit, I strongly recommend that you read the label carefully for possible side-effects.
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